Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Will your Internet provider be spying on you?

By Douglas Rushkoff, CNN Contributor
updated 10:03 AM EDT, Fri July 6, 2012
Internet service providers and media giants want to fight illegal downloading by monitoring it at the source - your computer.
Internet service providers and media giants want to fight illegal downloading by monitoring it at the source - your computer.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Douglas Rushkoff: Your Internet service provider may soon begin monitoring your account
  • He says new alliance of Fox, Disney, Sony, big ISPs to detect, stop online piracy
  • He says new plan lets ISP's keep track of, punish offenders, but could take in the innocent
  • Rushkoff: Subscribers will be losing expectation of privacy from their own service providers

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist and the author of "Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age" and "Life Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World and How We Can Take It Back."

(CNN) -- This month, if everything goes according to schedule, your Internet service provider may begin monitoring your account, just to make sure you aren't doing anything wrong with it -- like sharing copyrighted movie or music files. While we might all agree that copyright holders need to be protected, we may not all be equally happy about all of our communications being checked for violations. People and businesses who are not doing anything illegal may still have some things they wish to hide from their Internet access providers.

Under normal circumstances, your Internet service provider, or ISP, tries to protect you and your data from spying eyes. Cablevision, Time Warner Cable (an independent company no longer directly affiliated with TimeWarner, the parent of CNN and this site) and Comcast utilize all sorts of software to keep the connections between our modems and their servers safe. They also encourage us to keep our home networks secure from eavesdroppers.

But what are we supposed to do when the eavesdropper is the ISP itself?

This is the most disturbing question raised by a new alliance among America's biggest ISPs and media giants such as Disney, Sony and Fox, which is to go into effect this month. The effort, dubbed the Center for Copyright Information, hopes to combat the illegal downloading and sharing of movies and music by monitoring it at the source - your computer.

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

Until now, it was up to movie and music companies to figure out when their stuff was being illegally shared. This was a little tricky, because files aren't stored on just one user's computer. Hundreds or thousands of sharers have bits and pieces of stolen files, for downloaders to reassemble into songs or movies.

So movie companies have been searching online for copies of their own movies, identifying the locations of everyone from whom they received a bit of data. Then they contact the Internet service providers, who send letters of warning to subscribers' homes.

A number of clever workarounds, including certain kinds of encryption or the use of "proxy" servers in other countries, have helped advanced users of file-sharing software stay one step ahead of the movie companies. If a file sharer appears to be working out of New Guinea, say, the movie studio can't rely on a friendly ISP to find an illegal downloader here in the United States.

As I understand the new agreement and subsequent comments, which are about as cryptic as a copy-protected DVD, ISP's have agreed to implement a standardized "graduated response plan" through which offending users are warned, restricted and eventually cut off from the Internet for successive violations. The companies are supposed to be developing systems that keep track of all this, so that the letters and usage restrictions happen automatically. The fact that they are all agreeing to participate makes it harder for any one company to win the disgruntled customers of those who have been disciplined by another.

But now that they're free from individual blame, there's also the strong possibility that the ISPs will be doing the data monitoring directly. That's a much bigger deal. So instead of reaching out to the Internet to track down illegally flowing bits of their movies, the studios will sit back while ISP's "sniff" the packets of data coming to and from their customers' computers. While they're simply claiming to be protecting copyright holders, ISPs have a lot to gain from all this as well.

For instance, in many cases the Internet subscriber might have no knowledge of the infraction that the ISP detects. A houseguest might log onto one's home network simply to check e-mail. Because his sharing software might be running in the background (even when he's not downloading files himself) he is in effect sharing his own movie files wherever he goes. Your ISP sniffs the packets, so you are nabbed. The same is true for those of us who run "open networks" so that neighbors and others nearby can get free Internet access when they need it. (In the old days, that used to be considered polite.)

Once sharing a network connection becomes a legal liability, our already privatized access channels will become less a community resource. And the ISP's will have the pleasure of selling individual subscriptions to neighbors who used to share.

Worse, subscribers will be losing their expectation of privacy from their own service providers. While most of us aren't too worried about someone at an Internet provider seeing our messages to Aunt Sophie, businesses, law firms or hospitals who use the Internet to communicate privileged information might have more reservations.

If monitoring of data streams becomes de rigueur, what's to stop an ISP (or a particularly unscrupulous or bribable employee) from monitoring its competitors' communications? Admittedly, such scenarios are only as outlandish as the possibility that Murdoch newspapers could successfully bribe Scotland Yard.

As Internet security expert Josh Klein explained to me, "Honestly, the prohibition made more sense than this." To protect his own data, he already uses servers outside the United States, and fears other companies may soon feel the need to do the same: "The risk of losing their 'net [access] because someone accidentally streamed the wrong thing is a business prerogative significant enough to tunnel all their traffic to a country that provides sensible data privacy laws. How much long after that until the rest of the company gets off-shored?"

Whether the agreement promises to unleash such demons has yet to be seen. For the time being, though, the practice of preventing abuse by restricting peer-to-peer activity appears doomed only to escalate the arms race between consumers and their producers.

The longer term solution would be to develop an appropriate social contract: conducting ourselves online under the same civilized behavioral norms that keep us from, say, stealing stuff from one another's homes even though we could probably get away with it. It's not really that hard, and it's worth figuring out before the privilege of free interaction is taken away from us - along with any expectation of privacy.

Only by strengthening people's ability to distinguish between sharing and stealing will we be able to build a society capable of surviving our networks.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Douglas Rushkoff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT